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Why is the administration doubling down on family detention?

It’s been a heartbreaking week for children and mothers fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. Continuing the unprecedented expansion of family detention in less than a year, on Monday Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to the tiny town of Dilley, Texas to inaugurate our country’s newest and soon-to-be largest immigration detention center. Meanwhile, the Karnes County, Texas commissioners voted to more than double the number of beds to lock up families in Karnes City’s private, for-profit family detention center. These detainees are mothers, toddlers, and babies, many of whom have fled unspeakable terror and trauma, and who pose no danger to the United States. 

Locking up these vulnerable groups is unconscionable and unnecessary. To witness the Administration’s wholesale endorsement of family detention as the president promotes family values with his historic executive action that will keep millions of families together in the United States leaves us torn on how to celebrate such an enormous victory when it comes at the cost of so many.   

{mosads}Secretary Johnson’s remarks this week emphasized that “we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released.” When mothers are forced to make the terrifying decision to flee for their lives, detention is not the deterrent the Administration believes it is. Parents will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are protected. Secretary Johnson also noted in his remarks that a new, in-country refugee program in Central America would constitute an “alternative, lawful path to the United States” implying that children or parents requesting protection at the border are doing so unlawfully.  

To be clear, asking for protection at the border is not unlawful. The ability for those fleeing violence and persecution to seek asylum is a cornerstone of the values this country was built on.  And the program Secretary Johnson referenced is available only to a small number of children who already have a lawfully present parent. In seeking to quickly detain and deport families seeking asylum at our border, the administration has failed to acknowledge that the majority of these women and children have credible protection needs and cannot be returned to their home countries for fear of violence and even death. 

Dilley’s opening this week caps a year of swift reversal in the government’s approach to families, children, and others who are seeking asylum at the United States border. In May 2014 the U.S. had 96 family immigration detention beds, located in the small Berks shelter in Pennsylvania. All of the family facilities now operating – Dilley, Berks, and the Karnes facilities are expected to expand in the coming months, meaning that 96 beds will be transformed into close to 4,000 in less than one year. Dilley alone will have 2,400 beds. 

The Women’s Refugee Commission has long documented the devastating impact detention has on families. Our research this year found that reviving this long-discredited practice has not improved it. In confinement, mothers are unable to truly parent their children, because even with some small autonomy, everything hinges on the rules and decisions governing the facility or made by guards. Families fear separation as punishment. Mothers watch their children become depressed and lose appetite, and yet are powerless to act on their every instinct to somehow make it better and less scary. 

We’ve documented the inadequate medical and mental health care for these women, many of whom – including their young children – have directly experience gender-based or other violence. Even at Berks, the smaller and older family facility I recently visited again, the impact of long-term detention is clear. Subject to the government’s recent policies that oppose release, the mothers I talked to expressed hopelessness and desperation over the impact that detention has on the health and wellbeing of their children. 

Over and over we have come to the same conclusion: there is simply no humane way to detain families. 

As we look toward a new year, the Women’s Refugee Commission urges the Administration and Congress to turn to more humane and fair policies for these vulnerable populations. There are far less costly community support programs or other types of alternatives to detention that should be used in place of, not in addition to, detention. Rather than being detained, children should be free to have their own toys, play freely, and go to school. Mothers should be able to parent their children. Families fleeing persecution should have access to an attorney to receive the protection they deserve. Denying these families their most basic due process protections as well as their most basic rights as parents, children, and as members of a family, is not who we are as a country. 

Obser is program officer of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

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